editorial (2006-09)

Take It Outside

A venerable smokers’ refuge kicks the habit

Take It Outside

The Bistro at the Bijou is one of downtown’s oldest restaurant-bars—not only as an entity called the Bistro, which is around 30 years old now, but as the heir of a venerable space that was a saloon even before the Civil War. The Bistro has thrived gracefully during the long but temporary closure of the theater that hosts it; both its bar and its restaurant draw business every night.

A couple of months before the reopening of the restored old vaudeville house (what was announced as an April reopening is now looking more like May or June), the Bistro is coming up with a little surprise. As of Saturday, April 1—and we’re told it’s no joke—the Bistro will be a strictly no-smoking establishment.

General manager Martha Boggs has run the place as a smoking-friendly establishment for 13 years. When she first came to work there, the place was all-smoking: not only that, the lawyers’ refuge had something of a reputation as a cigar lounge.

Some years ago, when Boggs banned cigars and separated out a non-smoking section, she says her business doubled. Lately, she’s been experimenting with no-smoking nights to the burgeoning Tennessee Theatre crowds. “It was so well-received, and so much more pleasant in here,” she says, so she decided to try it permanently.

She also had pre-emptive motives; she was concerned about future Bijou crowds coming into the Bistro at intermission just to take a smoke break. “I didn’t want to be their ashtray,” she says.

Boggs is carrying no banners. She says the Bistro, being a low-ceilinged restaurant in a historic building, has some distinctive issues that make smoke-abatement technologies especially problematic in there.

“I’m not trying to make a social statement,” she says. “For my situation, my business, it just makes sense.”

The fact that the Bistro, the bar, is going non-smoking is probably bigger news than the fact that the Bistro, the restaurant, is. Several Knoxville restaurants have gone all no-smoking in recent years. Even Arby’s, down the street, which kept a non-smoking section until just a couple of months ago, is now all no-smoking.

All the while, though, restaurants best known for their bar-oriented nightlife have kept ashtrays handy. The overwhelming majority of Knoxville’s nightclubs, from the high to the low, still allow smoking. The feeling seems to be that people have a right to enjoy their food without inhaling tobacco fumes, but when you go out for a drink, or to a rock ‘n’ roll show, you’re on your own.

However, even that may be changing by increments. Sapphire, the restaurant/cocktail lounge on Gay Street, has been no-smoking ever since it opened almost a year ago, as is Uncorked, the small wine bar on Market Square which opened not long before that. Even the Corner Lounge, the formerly infamous den of iniquity on Central Street, hosts non-smoking nights.

It makes sense. A customer’s reactive cough at the fumes emanating from a nearby smoker, or nonsmokers who come home from a nightclub reeking of cigarette smoke, may be the smallest part of the problem. In closed containers like bars and restaurants, nonsmokers inhale the same toxins that smokers do.

The jury’s still out about the health threats of some lifestyle choices. The amount and kind of fat recommended in the diet, for example, is an issue doctors and nutritionists may be revising for decades to come. However, there’s no doubt that cigarette smoking promotes stroke, heart disease, emphysema, and a variety of cancers, including those of the lung and breast. It may be the least-controversial cause-and-effect formula in medicine today.

Likewise, the health threats of passive smoking are no longer debatable. People who don’t smoke, but spend a lot of time around people who do, do demonstrate much higher rates of smoking-related diseases, and higher rates of mortality from these diseases. For that reason, several nations, including even willful Ireland, have banned smoking in public places. Most recently England, the birthplace of the pub, has banned smoking in pubs.

Barroom romantics protest that a no-smoking bar can’t be a real bar, at least not in the Rat Pack, French existentialist, bar-noir sense. Some moments in Casablanca , the most famous restaurant-bar scenes in cinema, for example, wouldn’t have played as well without a cigarette. Rick’s Café Americain was all-smoking. And Humphrey Bogart, who lent his name to a cool style of smoking, died in his 50s, slowly and painfully, of lung cancer.

Smokers protest it’s a matter of choice. It’s one thing to tell people they can’t come into any given establishment and smoke. The worst that may happen is that they get fidgety and go outside for a drag. It seems another thing altogether to tell people, be they asthmatics, children, cancer survivors, or people trying hard to quit, that they can’t come into a place without smoking.

Until recently, Knoxvillians who want to go out and have a beer or a glass of wine with friends without smoking have hardly had a choice.

We suspect that, for better or worse, smoking-friendly bars will probably be an option in this tobacco state for the rest of our natural lives. That is, unless medical experts find a way to express, appropriately, the public costs to state and federal taxpayers, of smoking. Smokers’ diseases tend to be chronic, and notoriously expensive to treat, and many of these expenses are reflected in state and federal taxes and insurance premiums. According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking costs the United States more than $75 billion per year in excess medical costs. Few of these monetary costs are paid directly by the victims themselves, those who were defiant about their individual rights to smoke. They are instead borne by insurance companies and federal and state governments, and ultimately by citizens, most of whom do not smoke. If these expenses could be consolidated into a state or federal tax known as the Other People’s Right to Smoke Tax, would Tennesseans happily pay it? Maybe that’s the key.